I recently spent three nights and two days on the Ridgeway Path. The Ridgeway (‘the middle bit’ of the ‘Greater Ridgeway ancient route that stretches 360 miles diagonally between the Dorset and Norfolk coasts) is about 87 miles in length. I did around 24 miles on two sections in total across the two days.
But the section I did was 30 years and as many miles displaced from the part I knew as a child and teenager (hence almost memory lane). The names of the villages and towns I came close to or stayed overnight at (camping) were familiar, just not known like the back of my (ageing) hand.
There’s scant audio-visual accompaniment to this blog post: my phone’s SD card fubar’d whilst away (on the last morning). So pretty much all my trip photos and the handful of videos I had shot have gone. A few days after the event I’m pretty sanguine about it (mostly) and it’s a reminder not rely on technology too much. And to maybe have a backup camera to share the load. And to use my memory more of course (possibly, although that’s never been a great storage medium for me).
Those photos I managed to rescue are here but some are lo-res saves for some reason, so a tad grainy. That’s maybe poetically fitting though, as it matches my impressions of walks on the Ridgeway as a child: Blue remembered hills and all that.
And there’s a Frankenstein project of a film (see below), stitched and glitched from the scrambled bytes of a once dead SD card.
The section I chose to walk was from Wallingford in Oxfordshire on the Friday morning through to Wendover (actually I got to Butlers Cross) in Buckinghamshire on the Sunday morning, via Cadsden where I was to meet an old friend, Mark, for a night of wild camping and meteor-spotting.
The final section of the Ridgeway (Wendover to Ivinghoe beacon) is a one-dayer that I want to do with my daughter at some point but wasn’t for this trip.
Maps below showing the two parts I walked courtesy of http://www.nationaltrail.co.uk/Ridgeway/:
Day 1 : Wallingford to Watlington Hill Rd
Starting on the Friday morning meant driving down to Wallingford on the Thursday night, straight from a client meeting, so I could pitch my tent. I live about 3.5 hours from Wallingford so didn’t want to drive down on the morning.
Wallingford is a great little town (founded in the 10th Century, as I found out) and I spent the evening a couple of Doombars by a Thames- side pub and perusing the Ridgeway (by Nick Hill) book I’d bought. It’s a great little book, if you are planning to walk the Ridgeway, I recommend you get it.
The campsite I stayed at was actually just across the bridge from Wallingford (in Crowmarsh Gifford) and on the ‘right side’ of the Thames for the Ridgeway, which runs close to it. It was Bridge Villa Camping, a nice little site with great amenities. They let me leave my car there for the 2 days and 3 nights whilst I was off walking, which helped the logistics a lot. Actually, I had originally planned to stay in Streatley on the Thursday night and start my walk there but the only place I could see for a stopover was the Youth Hostel and it was fully booked.. So I did less walking on day one (starting as I did, in Wallingford) but the campsite and Thames-side Doombar softened the blow 😉
Some photos from day 1:
Some of the photos I lost are of the Iron Age Grim’s Ditch / dyke that I walked alongside (and down in, for some variety) for a fair part of the five or so hour walk to Watlington. I hardly saw anyone on the first day (being a Friday) so the stillness of the wooded sections and the ditch running parallel to me on a lot of the walk put me into a reflective frame of mind. Including reflecting on how tired I was getting.
Five hours doesn’t sound like a long day’s walk on what is a pretty ‘easy’ trail with little or no inclines. But it was surprisingly tiring – I had a heavy rucksack – despite my efforts to keep the weight to a minimum, the one man tent, bivvy bag (yes I brought both), clothes and two litres of water all added to the weight. I was even cursing the small amount of 10 year old malt that I’d decanted into a smaller bottle; to drink under the stars when I caught up with my old friend on the Saturday night. And it was really muggy all day, which made for slow walking on occasion. A lot of the path was in shade, which was bit of a mixed blessing. Great to avoid too much sun but (being used to the wide open views of the moors) my tunnel-ed route did actually get a bit restricting after a while.
Red Kite fly-bys
Around the village of Nuffield, the Ridgeway heads through a golf course (Huntercombe golf club). There were a couple of Red Kites in evidence above me , looking fantastic against the blue sky but I kept my eyes mostly on the fairways, as there were some golfing parties out and about. The path takes you right through the course and I really didn’t want a high velocity golf ball on the head!
I stopped a couple of times for a snack and a sit down and to get out of the corralled tree-tunnel and into the edges of fields. I wanted to see some sky and to watch the whistling Red Kites. I could hear the Kites pretty much for the whole day – I was really surprised how many there were in evidence in the skies. They’re beautiful birds but I couldn’t help thinking that their re-introduction has been so successful (over the two days I saw about forty, including a few swooping around village centres) that they must be impacting populations of field mammals? Maybe not? Having them back in the ecosystem maybe just gets things back to ‘where they were’ and other populations have increased due to that (which I think is the paradoxical effect of Wolves being reintroduced in parts of the USA). They really did dominate the skies though.
By the time I’d got to Watlington (probably less than 5 hours in total actually) I was pretty done in. It actually felt like a walk twice as far! I spent the night camping on the edge of Watlington at White Mark Farm, in the ‘Adults Only’ section. Not as cheeky as it sounds, it just meant backpackers had a section away from the busy family field. The Red Kites patrolled both areas though! It’s a great little campsite with clean loos and hot showers – just what I needed after a hot day. And the pub just down the road, The Carriers Arms, served great food and had a couple of real ales on, so I spent the warm evening in the beer garden reading a paper, a nice way to end the day. Even though it was getting dark on my walk back to the campsite I could see the White Mark chalk folly up on the hill above the Ridgeway.
Day 2 : Watlington to Cadsden
The first part of the walk was pretty uneventful other than I had to go under the M40 via a tunnel fairly soon after leaving Watlington. This was another muggy day but one with a few impromptu stops as it seemed like everyone was out walking their dogs (being a Saturday). The Ridgeway transects a few roads so people park up and then take the dog/s out along stretches of the path. Most of the conversations I had were instigated by others, wanting to have a chat about where I’d been, where I was going etc, all very sociable. I wasn’t in solitude-mode or in any rush so it was nice stopping to chat away. There were a lot of cyclists too (on the sections they were allowed to use) but not as many horses as I thought I’d see, based on some of the route being a bridleway. My friend Kate had told me to watch out for the Gallops .. tracts of close-cropped field-side land given over to, well, galloping with horses (race horses in training). Although we’d both lived in the chiltern area as kids I hadn’t recalled the Gallops in my particular patch. I did see a couple of horses and jockeys hurtling along on the other side of a large field at one point but they didn’t get within camera view, they looked great though.
Most of this section was more exposed than the day before, e.g less tree tunnels and also a bit more road walking (particularly towards Princes Risborough) so it felt even hotter than the day before.
An interesting part of the route on the second day was when I headed off the Ridgeway / Icknield Way (they merge in this area) and went up a signposted track to Chinnor Hill Barrows. I was looking at a signpost for the Barrows area, pondering the weight of the rucksack and the muggy weather (another close and humid day) when a friendly dog walker said ‘decisions, decisions – go on, head up, it’s a great view at the top’. So I walked up with her, having a chat as we headed up the wooded trail to the top. She mentioned the Chiltern 3 Peaks (see later) which I hadn’t realised was a ‘thing’. We parted company at the top and I went into the Barrows area to get a view and eat some food.
After the Chinnor and Bledlow area I then took a slight wrong turn and followed what was the Upper Icknield Way (or at least the road signs said as much). I was in confident mood and didn’t stop to check the map / book – in my mind I would soon merge back onto the Ridgeway (as a field / countryside route) .. which it would I have done if I hadn’t missed the signpost that separated one from the other. So rather than go through what would have been the second golf course traverse (near Princes Risborough) on The Ridgeway, I spent a bit longer walking on country lanes than I should have done. The only consolation was having a nosey at some of the lovely farmhouse / stockbrokers estates along the route 🙂
Up to Whiteleaf Cross and down to Cadsden
After skirting around Princes Risborough, the entwined Upper Icknield and Ridgeway paths diverted and I headed up the wooded latter for Whiteleaf Hill / Cross, a hill that houses neolithic barrows and a burial chamber.
Part way towards White Leaf I stopped to look back to where I’d been earlier at Chinnor Hill and Barrows and ‘Bledlow Cop’.
Once I got up to Whiteleaf, I had some great views from the hill clearing but didn’t actually get much of a look at the earthworks; as my arrival coincided with a couple of big family parties appearing and dominating the area. I wasn’t being mardy, I was just pretty hot and tired though and knew the Plough at Cadsden beckoned through the trees and down the hill. Which is where I headed – and I had an hour or two to ‘rehydrate’ and wait for my old friend Mark (yes I could have out-waited the throngs up on the hill to mooch at the barrows – but I didn’t feel like hauling my hot and tired self back up there ).
Mark and I were at school together and shared a flat briefly in London after our respective college / uni days but other than a friend’s wedding about 22 years ago (!) we hadn’t seen each other since. The upside of facebook – meeting old friends again and arranging to meet up. Mark returned to live back in the area years ago and loves the woods and tracks around him so he’d picked a spot for the night to star-gaze (and meteor-gaze) and camp out. Which after a beer or four, a meal for me (great food at The Plough!) and catching up, is what we did.
A night on Pulpit Hill
We headed for Pulpit Hill (follow link for info and some photos) and the Iron Age fort there. What an atmospheric place, even more so in the twilight. The only illumination was the occasional flash of our head torches to avoid tree roots and the sporadic green bioluminescence of the glow worms in this SSSI area. Even in the onset of dusk and the large numbers of trees growing in / over the fort earthworks (partially obscuring a clean vista) you can still easily discern the barrows / ridges (double formation) that describe a age circle o the flat area of land a top the hill. And (I’m pretty sure) the woodland as it is now (beech trees) wouldn’t have been so prevalent so the ‘fort’ dwellers may well have kept animals close by, used the space as a way-station for drovers and travellers going back and forth along the ancient ridgeway etc. I’m partially guessing here of course but you can see that with less trees and the steep sides of the hill, this was a great location to live, trade, skirmish from.
We set up camp nearby and were joined by Jamie, another flat-mate of yesteryear (also still living in the area) and then headed off to a clearing (closer to the Ridgeway path) so we could lie out and watch the skies for the Perseid meteor shower that was peaking around 10th-12th August. Despite some heavy cloud we had some clear breaks for the couple of hours we lay out, catching up on All Those Years That Rushed By and saw quite a few ‘shooting stars’, fantastic. We headed back to get our bivvy bags with a plan to lie out under the stars in the clearing for much longer. But the combined middle-aged weariness saw us stay put by the wild camp and chat for a bit before hitting the sack (those flat-sharing days of late or all night energy seems a long time ago, pah).
In the morning Mark and Jamie joined me for the 30 or so minutes it took to rejoin the Ridgeway and cut across the front of the camera-studded security of the Chequers (Prime Minister’s retreat) estate (it’s ok kids, it’s part of the Ridgeway). We parted company there and I headed off on the trail for Wendover and a taxi to take me back to Wallingford (where the car was). I had a change of mind after about 20 minute though, as my phone had started to play up and I was worried about the logistics of phone calls, taxis and the 4 hour trip back north. So I headed into nearby Butlers Cross and called in a cab from there. And from there back to Wallingford and a nice ‘welcome’ reception from a couple I’d chatted to on the Thursday night. They thought I was a bit mad I think but offered me coffee to set me up for the trip home. What nice folks.
And that kind of summed up the trip for me – a ‘solo’ mini adventure hike but one that was studded with chatty, social moments. Very nice. I’m really looking forward to doing the ‘first part’ of the Ridgeway from Avebury and then the ‘final part’ from Wendover at some point soon.
The film of the blog
A very glitchy film with very little of the ‘footage’ I had made that survived the SD card implosion. I’d had fun making little to-camera pieces, having just bought a phone / camera ‘gorilla pod’ grip thing to suspend from trees branches or balance on the path-side, but pretty much all those died in SD card failure. Lucky for you, sad for me!
The Chiltern 3 Peaks.
There’s a Chilterns 3 Peaks it seems. I was told by (another) nice woman out walking her dog who got chatting to me. She’s done the Yorkshire 3 Peaks (one peak per visit north), I mentioned I’d done the Y3P a few times now (get me) and she said I’d love the ‘C3P’. Having seen the website now, I agree.. but it’ll have to wait till next year as I’m away the same weekend it is on.
Good luck and have fun to all those doing it.